Merrick Garland's approach to prosecuting January 6th has underappreciated strengths -- if he stays true to his vision

“You’re not a wartime consigliere, Tom,” Michael Coreleone tells his adopted brother in The Godfather. Michael sees that for all Tom Hagen’s legal brilliance and family loyalty, he’s temperamentally unfit for the raw power struggle that awaits the family in Nevada.

Many have made the same brutal assessment of Attorney General Merrick Garland as he oversees the Biden administration’s legal efforts to preserve American democracy. As he addressed the Justice Department and the nation Wednesday, Garland seemed slight and soft-spoken, a scholar rather than a brawler, an incongruous choice to lead the Justice Department in its greatest battle since the Civil Rights Movement. But Garland’s calm, cerebral approach may also have underappreciated strengths.

In a speech full of legal and historical references to the Justice Department’s historic role as a protector of the people from attacks against democratic institutions, Garland laid out his vision for a comprehensive response to right-wing authoritarianism that encompasses prosecuting the J6 insurgents, protecting our public servants from politically motivated harassment and intimidation, and safeguarding the right to vote.

Garland’s greatest asset is his grasp of the big picture. His speech showed that he understands that J6 was more than an isolated upwelling of rage, that it was part of a concerted right-wing attempt to impose minority rule.

Garland affirmed that Justice’s No. 1 priority is bringing everyone criminally responsible for the insurrection to justice, no matter how powerful they are, and regardless of whether they were physically present that day.

This could be a hint that the Justice Department plans to prosecute high-level leadership of militia groups, Republican elected officials, Trump advisors or possibly even the former president himself.

We’ll see if Garland delivers on that implied promise, but it’s a hopeful sign that the months of painstaking investigation may finally be about to deliver results.

In the second half of his speech, Garland reaffirmed his commitment to fighting for the survival of our democracy on other fronts.

He pledged that Justice will “protect those who serve the public from violence and threats” and preserve “the right of every eligible citizen to cast a vote that counts.”

In the year since the insurrection, the right wing has refocused its efforts on the community level, organizing to install coup sympathizers in state and local political offices, including elections administration and even as secretaries of state.

Public health officers, election officials and school board members have been subjected to ugly campaigns of harassment and intimidation. In October, the Justice Department convened a task force to address a disturbing spike in harassment and intimidation against educators.

The right wing predictably played the victim alleging that Big Brother was trying to stifle their First Amendment rights. As Garland stressed in his speech, quoting the late Republican Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, threats are not protected by the First Amendment.

Threats against public officials are crimes that undermine the First Amendment rights of the entire community. Garland emphasized that threats themselves are crimes and that the Justice Department will intervene at the threat stage and not wait until someone follows through on violence.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment in Garland’s speech was his insistence that “these acts and threats of violence are not associated with any one set of partisan or ideological views.”

In fact, these attacks are a clear upwelling of the same right-wing violence, aided and abetted by many of the same people who stormed the Capitol or incited others to do so.

Campaigns to radicalize parents and voters against their local elected officials are being funded by some of the country’s largest right-wing dark money groups. It’s the same rage-based playbook that swept the Tea Party to power, but supercharged for our time.

The victims include public health officials and school board members harassed over pandemic restrictions, and election administrators threatened with horrible reprisals based on right-wing fantasies of voter fraud.

Garland’s speech shows that he understands both the stakes and the scope of the struggle ahead. However, his insistence that threats against local officials are not limited to any particular political persuasion is an insult to our collective intelligence.

J6 was insurgency 1.0 and the grim local struggles at school boards, libraries, and boards of elections are insurgency 2.0.

Garland cares deeply about civil liberties and wants to reassure the American people that nobody is being targeted for their politics alone, no matter how extreme their views.

However, perpetuating the myth that the local bullying campaigns are nonpartisan undercuts the comprehensive vision articulated elsewhere in the speech, that the J6 insurgency and the local attacks on our elected officials and our elections are all one threat, a concerted effort towards right wing minority rule.

If Garland can stay true to his vision, he may turn out to be a wartime consigliere after all.